With Hawkins gone, where do Bengals turn?

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
5:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- They had until midnight to make a decision, but the Cincinnati Bengals figured it pointless to make the Cleveland Browns sit around and wait that long.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday, word began trickling out the Bengals had in fact decided not to match the offer Cleveland had extended to restricted free agent receiver Andrew Hawkins last week. The four-year, $13.6 million deal was simply too pricey for them to justify. As much as they liked having the shifty, speedy player on their roster the last three years, they had to part ways.

It was an expected outcome.

Just last Thursday, ESPN.com reported it was unlikely the Bengals would match the offer once it made a final increase earlier in the day. Originally, the Browns had offered Hawkins four years at just more than $12 million. In addition to the slight increase in overall price, his revised deal also stipulates that $10.8 million of the $13.6 million be paid out in the first two years.

It wasn't the best deal for the Bengals to match on a receiver who didn't play much last season due to injury, and who would have entered the preseason as the No. 4 receiving option behind A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

So where does Cincinnati go from here?

Essentially, not far. The Bengals seemed to operate just fine without Hawkins through the first eight games last season as he rehabbed from an ankle injury. When he finally was able to play, Hawkins caught 12 passes for 199 yards. Several of those receptions helped set up scores or positive field position for the Bengals, but if you took them away, quarterback Andy Dalton still would have passed for 4,094 yards and completed 351 passes.

Those are still some pretty good passing numbers. They also are a sign the Bengals will be OK without Hawkins.

But the thing is this. Had Hawkins been healthy all season, there may have been even more catches, yards and first downs to be had. Remember, the year before, Hawkins was Cincinnati's third-leading receiver, catching 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns. This story from last week about the impact of Hawkins' playmaking ability shows that he averaged 6.12 yards after catch per reception made in 2012 as a slot receiver. That was better than the likes of Wes Welker, Randall Cobb and Victor Cruz.

Numbers like that one and others that appear in that story become important when you consider new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's plans. He wants to build a physical offense that starts with the run, and thrives on unexpected passes. You'll see Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis carry the ball more often than they did last year. You'll also see the Bengals run more playaction than they did. You'll see more reverses and wide receiver screens; patterns that a healthy Hawkins would dominate. His combination of elite speed and size -- he's listed at 5-foot-7 -- should make it difficult for safeties and linebackers to key on him when he's running behind bigger pulling guards and tackles who are good at blocking downfield like Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth.

As much as Hawkins could have done all of that and been quite good at it, it bears mentioning that the Bengals have others who can fill those shoes.

Green was used on a few screens last season and could certainly be used in them again this year. Jones was the Bengals' early-season option for reverses while Hawkins was still out. In Weeks 1 and 6, he had carries of 14 and 34 yards, respectively.

As for who will take Hawkins' spot on the roster? That remains to be seen. For now, it seems that Dane Sanzenbacher will slip into that role as soon as his free agency status finds resolution. Like Hawkins and linebacker Vincent Rey, Sanzenbacher was given a low-round tender two weeks ago, just before free agency started. He hasn't yet had any offers for the Bengals to match. It is expected that he will be re-signed. Sanzenbacher had six catches for 61 yards last season.

It might still be in the Bengals' best interest to look in the draft for a player with speed similar to Hawkins' who can play the slot and the edges. One player to keep an eye on is Pittsburg State's John Brown. He doesn't appear on many mocks currently, but Brown ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and shares some of the same underdog characteristics that Hawkins embraced and that made him a fan favorite. Since Brown didn't play at a Division I school, it's easy to overlook him, just like it was easy to overlook Hawkins when he came out of the CFL to play for the Bengals.

Also like Hawkins, Brown has some experience playing the gunner position in college. While it was Hawkins' speed as a slot receiver that got the most attention, his ability to quickly get to punt returners on the coverage team solidified his spot on the field.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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